Quantcast

Across the U.S., Climate Change Lawsuits Are Gaining Steam

Climate
Youth plaintiffs and their attorneys hold a press briefing on the steps of the Miami-Dade Courthouse in Miami in conjunction with a lawsuit they filed against the state of Florida over climate change on April 16th. Robin Loznak

The scandal-plagued head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says he's not sure whether "human activity ... is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see." The president has moved to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. And climate-science deniers and skeptics control Congress.


But that still leaves environmental advocates with one branch of government: the judiciary.

Greens are trying to use the courts to establish accountability for the damages associated with global climate change; a couple of new lawsuits and one important court ruling from just the last week show that the strategy has real promise.

On Tuesday, the city of Boulder, Colorado, along with Boulder County and San Miguel County filed a lawsuit in state court against ExxonMobil and Suncor (Canada's largest oil firm), seeking to recover some of the costs associated with climate change impacts. The lawsuit says the Colorado communities are already bearing the costs of climate-change-related problems such as extreme rainstorms and flooding, more frequent and intense wildfires, and a declining snowpack. Big oil companies, the lawsuit contends, contributed to those impacts.

"By hiding what they knew about, and affirmatively misrepresenting the dangers of unabated fossil fuel use, the Defendants protected fossil fuel demand and obstructed the changes needed to prevent or at least minimize the impacts of climate change," according to the lawsuit.

The case is just the latest attempt to try to hold the major carbon polluters responsible for climate change impacts. Eight California cities and counties are suing a range of fossil fuel companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and Peabody Coal, among others—for the costs of preparing for sea level rise. Last month, a federal judge in San Francisco who is handling four of those cases held an unprecedented climate tutorial that forced the major carbon polluters to admit in court that they accept the basic science of human-driven climate change. In January, New York City filed a similar case against the five largest publicly traded oil companies.

The Colorado case is a departure from earlier lawsuits, however; it doesn't, for obvious reasons, focus on sea level rise. "These communities felt it was important to highlight the fact that climate change impacts are being felt everywhere, including far from the oceans," Marco Simons, the general counsel at EarthRights International, which helped write the Colorado complaint, told Sierra. "This case shows that communities across the country are waking up to the reality, both the impacts they are facing from climate change and the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry to help pay for those injuries."

The new Colorado case is also significant in that it opens up yet another legal arena in which the oil companies must play defense.

The announcement of the Colorado lawsuit came just four days after the Massachusetts Supreme Court delivered a major setback to ExxonMobil in another climate-change-related case. Massachusetts's attorney general, Maura Healey, is investigating whether ExxonMobil may have violated the state's consumer protection law by misleading its customers and investors about the impacts of climate change. In a 32-page opinion, the state's highest court ruled that the case can move forward and that Healey has the authority to force ExxonMobil to deliver internal company documents. The justices appeared to go out of their way to highlight the high stakes involved in the case, writing, "The Attorney General's investigation concerns climate change caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions—a distinctly modern threat that grows more serious with time, and the effects of which are already being felt in Massachusetts."

The state supreme court ruling comes about a month after a federal court made a similar ruling against ExxonMobil's attempts to beat back the Healey investigation and a parallel investigation by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman into whether the oil giant might have misled investors about the risks of climate change. In that ruling, a U.S. district court judge slammed ExxonMobil's argument that it is the target of a conspiracy as "implausible."

The California, Colorado, and New York City lawsuits, along with the two attorneys general investigations, are all focused on holding corporations liable for some of the damage caused by climate change. Meanwhile, some other climate-related cases are seeking to hold governments accountable for fueling global warming.

On Monday, eight Florida youths ages 10 to 19 filed a lawsuit against the state government and Governor Rick Scott, who has been cagey about whether he accepts the basic science of climate change. The lawsuit alleges that by contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the state's actions have violated the young plaintiffs' constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. In their complaint, the eight young people charge that, "the Defendants know that Plaintiffs are living under climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm but have not responded reasonably to this urgent crisis, and instead have affirmatively acted to exacerbate the climate crisis."

The lawsuit was brought by Our Children's Trust, which has sought to use a legal theory called the public trust doctrine to push similar cases in a total of nine states, including Washington, Oregon, Maine and North Carolina. Our Children's Trust is also behind the landmark case targeting the federal government for exacerbating global warming. The 21 young plaintiffs in that case cleared a major procedural hurdle in March when a federal appeals court denied the government's effort to dismiss the case. Just last week, a federal magistrate in Oregon set a trial date for that lawsuit: Arguments will begin Oct. 29 at the federal courthouse in Eugene.

Julia Olson, the lead attorney in that case, has promised that Juliana v. United States will be "the trial of the century."

It's a good line. But given the increasing flood of climate liability cases, it looks like there's stiff competition for that honor.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

Ethics investigations have been opened into the conduct of senior Trump appointees at the nation's top environmental agencies.

The two investigations focus on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler and six high-ranking officials in the Department of Interior (DOI), The Hill reported Tuesday. Both of them involve the officials' former clients or employers.

"This is demonstrative of the failures at the very top of this administration to set an ethical tone," Campaign Legal Center Ethics Counsel Delaney Marsco told The Washington Post of the DOI investigation. "When people come to work for government, they're supposed to work on behalf of the public. It's a betrayal of the public trust when senior political appointees seem to give privileged access to their former employers or former clients."

Read More Show Less
Cigarette butt litter. Tavallai / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Dipika Kadaba

We've known for more than 50 years that smoking cigarettes comes with health hazards, but it turns out those discarded butts are harmful for the environment, too. Filtered cigarette butts, although small, contain dozens of chemicals, including arsenic and benzene. These toxins can leach into the ground or water, creating a potentially deadly situation for nearby birds, fish and other wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Thanasis Zovoilis / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Infants less than a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

By Wenonah Hauter

Five years ago this week, an emergency manager appointed by then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made the devastating decision to save money by switching Flint's water supply over from Detroit's water system to the Flint River. Seen as a temporary fix, the new water supply was not properly treated. High levels of lead leached from the old pipes, poisoning a generation of Flint's children, and bacteria responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease killed more than a dozen residents.

Read More Show Less
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California is listed as the nation's smoggiest city. Pixabay

Seven million more Americans lived in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution between 2015 and 2017 than between 2014 and 2016, and climate change is partly to blame, Time reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Kissing bug. Pavel Kirillov / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the kissing bug, which can transmit a potentially deadly parasite, has spread to Delaware, ABC News reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
"Take the pledge today." Screenshot / StopFoodWasteDay.com

Did you know that more than a third of food is wasted or thrown away every year? And that only 25 percent of it would be enough to feed the 795 million undernourished people in the world? That's why today is Stop Food Waste Day, a chance to reflect on what you can do to waste less of the food you buy.

Stop Food Waste Day is an initiative of food service company Compass Group. It was launched first in the U.S, in 2017 and went global the year after, making today it's second worldwide celebration.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat.

Read More Show Less